Muffin Break’s general manager, Natalie Brennan, has apologised for the controversy over her recent comments on unpaid work, claiming they have been misunderstood and do not “reflect my values”.
Late last week, News Corp quoted Ms Brennan (pictured) as suggesting that younger Australians have an “inflated” sense of self-entitlement, leading them to abandon unpaid internships and work experience.
“You don’t see it anymore. Before that people would be knocking on your door all the time, you couldn’t keep up with how many people wanted to be working. In fact, I’d run programs because there were so many coming in,” it quoted her as saying.
“In essence they’re working for free, but I can tell you, every single person who has knocked on my door for an internship or work experience has ended up with a job. Every single person, because they back themselves.”
The media giant also suggested that Ms Brennan was critical of employees wanting reward or being named “staff member of the month for doing their job”.
“Great, you did you job, so you get to keep your job.
“I’m generalising, but it definitely feels like this generation of 20-somethings has to be rewarded even if it’s the most mundane, boring thing, they want to be rewarded for doing their job constantly.”
‘Does not reflect my values’
In a statement issued on Monday (25 February) in response to the controversy, Ms Brennan said that “the recent article does not reflect my values or those of [Muffin Break’s parent company] Foodco”, and apologised “for any misunderstanding or upset”.
“Every day for the last 25 years, I’ve worked with young people who are motivated, passionate and hard-working. This is as true today as it was when I started my career,” she said.
“I don’t expect anyone to work unpaid and Foodco Group policy is, and has always been, that all employees including interns, employed either directly or through our brands, are paid according to relevant awards.”
Ms Brennan said that her comments specifically referred to traineeships conducted through education providers.
“The unpaid work I referred to was supervised programs run through schools, TAFEs or universities, which provide valuable gained experience to people before they enter the workforce full-time. I want to apologise for any misunderstanding or upset caused by my comments.”
Foodco issued its brief own statement, reiterating the policy about employees being paid according to industry awards, and added “we are proud that for almost 30 years we have provided jobs for thousands of young Australians and we will continue to do so”.
Comments gone viral
Regardless of Ms Brennan’s subsequent clarification, the comments quickly went viral on social media and in other media outlets around the country, with many people likening the comments to “slave labour” and suggesting they will boycott the brand in the future.
“Why don’t you give us muffins for free? It would give you great experience at making muffins,” read one of the 229 comments on Muffin Break’s Facebook page.
“What exactly is the value of an internship at a company so woefully run and set up that it can only be profitable if employers steal wages from staff?… What can such a business teach, that would actually be worth learning?” said another.
On Twitter, one commented with: “Entitlement isn’t people expecting to get paid for doing a job, entitlement is expecting people to work for free.”
Someone else took a dig at the company, tweeting: “Given how much that interview has damaged the brand in the past 24 hours, I can only assume that #MuffinBreak PR manager is also an unpaid internship.”
At least one commenter expressed sympathy for Muffin Break franchisees, who may bear the brunt of any customer backlash.
“Imagine sinking all of your savings into a franchise & then next week some[one] in the home office comes out with ‘stupid entitled [M]illennials should get over wanting to be paid’ and then you have 10,000 angry [M]illennials [sic] going ‘f**k you muffin guys’.”
Controversy again brings spotlight on franchise sector
The controversy has again put the franchise sector under scrutiny for wage underpayment, with at least one Twitter user posting a news article from The Guardian, dated 1 June 2018, which alleged that a former Muffin Break franchisee had been told by the company to “consider underpaying staff that I can trust” in order to be profitable.
“The key message was that as migrants, I must be aware of other migrants or students who would gladly accept underpayments in lure of their first job and hence not report or complain,” the franchisee, Faheem Mizra, was quoted as saying in a submission to the parliamentary inquiry into franchising.
“So, if I were able to exploit my employees, I could generate a profit. Otherwise, there is no other cost that can be managed enough to reverse this loss-making scenario.”
The Guardian article said that Foodco “strongly refutes this false allegation”.
In November 2016, the then operators of a Muffin Break outlet in Hobart were found by the Fair Work Ombudsman to have underpaid two employees to the tune of more than $46,000, by paying flat hourly rates of between $11 and $13 between April 2014 and December 2015.
One of the Chinese workers had been in Australia on a student visa, and the other was on a temporary skilled graduate visa before becoming a permanent resident.
The husband and wife franchisees had no prior non-compliance issues, the FWO said at the time, and so entered an enforceable undertaking (EU) instead of facing litigation.
Another Chinese worker was allegedly underpaid by close to $20,000 by two separate Melbourne stores owned by the same franchisee in 2012 and 2013, according to the FWO, again with the operator entering an EU.
In 2017, Muffin Break and its sister chain Jamaica Blue entered into a two-year compliance partnership with the FWO to improve compliance rates among their franchise network. The FWO confirmed it is currently preparing public report on the outcomes of this compliance focus.
The findings of the inquiry into the operation and effectiveness of the Franchising Code of Conduct, carried out by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Corporations and Financial Services, have been postponed several times.
With submissions closed on 4 May 2018, the committee had been due to report on 30 September last year, but that was deferred to 6 December 2018. That date has been postponed twice more, and is now scheduled for 14 March 2019.
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016.